No doubt the computer on which these words are written will take offense at them, and perhaps even attempt to abort rather than process them, but nonetheless let them be recorded: The claims of the "futurists" notwithstanding, a computer is not the same as a book, cannot hope to be the same as a book and will never replace a book.

The new orthodoxy, in its wisdom, claims otherwise. The death of the book--like, for that matter, the death of the newspaper and the magazine--is being announced these days with an omniscient authority comparable to that which accompanied the announcements, a couple of decades ago, of the death of the novel and the death of God. At every pillar and post, people who make it their business to proclaim the arrivals and departures of "trends" are forecasting that one of the first casualties of the electronic age will be the printed word; we are told that newspapers and magazines will be "delivered" through our television sets, that Shakespeare will be "processed" into software, and that in this brave new world there will be no need or excuse for words that have been printed on paper.

Don't believe it for a minute. Certainly the computer is here to stay, and certainly it offers many potential benefits for people who read and write, but any suggestion that it is about to replace or eliminate the printed word deserves to be greeted with a Bronx cheer.

To begin with, the cost of a computer that is capable of handling a book-length manuscript is now and is likely to remain prohibitive for most Americans; there is, in fact, the unpleasant prospect that access to sophisticated home computers, and the knowledge they contain, will become as much a demarcation of class and status as country club membership, adding yet another instrument of social divisiveness to a culture that scarcely needs further stratification.

But the most important reason why the future of the printed word looks as bright as it ever has is that the book possesses attributes that the computer cannot hope to rival. These were nicely summarized last week by Daniel Tanner, a professor of education at Rutgers University, in a letter to The New York Times. "Sweeping claims are being made that an educational revolution via the computer is on the horizon," Tanner wrote, "and some educators go so far as to see the computer replacing books in classrooms and libraries." He then listed several reasons why it is wise to be skeptical about "the demise of the book as a result of electronic technology":

"Aside from being easily portable and readable, in comparison to an electronic screen, and aside from its physical attractiveness, the book (with its pages) conveys a tactile quality and pleasure that no push-button circuitry can provide--even when one is only browsing or skimming through a book, or making marginal notations (preferably only on the pages of one's own books). Moreover, the book can be read while sitting, standing or lying down. It can even grace the walls of a home library or den when it is not being read."

A book, Tanner pointed out, has "personal" qualities that cannot be matched by the computer screen or the printout: People write their names in books "to designate valued ownership," and they often inscribe books when presenting them to friends or relatives as a way of emphasizing the intimate nature of the transaction. More than that, the book as a physical object can be, quite apart from the words it contains, something of great beauty and artistry; a handsome book that has been produced with painstaking care is, in and of itself, a gesture of homage to the written word, a way of recognizing that the art of writing commands reverence.

The computers, their many brilliant attributes notwithstanding, tend to forget about this. To them words are just another "product" to be "processed," to be "moved" and "rubbed out" and "scrolled" and all the other PREJUDICES Beauty and the Book Just Try to Curl Up with A Good Word Processor By Jonathan Yardley

No doubt the computer on which these words are written will take offense at them, and perhaps even attempt to abort rather than process them, but nonetheless let them be recorded: The claims of the "futurists" notwithstanding, a computer is not the same as a book, cannot hope to be the same as a book and will never replace a book.

The new orthodoxy, in its wisdom, claims otherwise. The death of the book--like, for that matter, the death of the newspaper and the magazine--is being announced these days with an omniscient authority comparable to that which accompanied the announcements, a couple of decades ago, of the death of the novel and the death of God. At every pillar and post, people who make it their business to proclaim the arrivals and departures of "trends" are forecasting that one of the first casualties of the electronic age will be the printed word; we are told that newspapers and magazines will be "delivered" through our television sets, that Shakespeare will be "processed" into software, and that in this brave new world there will be no need or excuse for words that have been printed on paper.

Don't believe it for a minute. Certainly the computer is here to stay, and certainly it offers many potential benefits for people who read and write, but any suggestion that it is about to replace or eliminate the printed word deserves to be greeted with a Bronx cheer.

To begin with, the cost of a computer that is capable of handling a book-length manuscript is now and is likely to remain prohibitive for most Americans; there is, in fact, the unpleasant prospect that access to sophisticated home computers, and the knowledge they contain, will become as much a demarcation of class and status as country club membership, adding yet another instrument of social divisiveness to a culture that scarcely needs further stratification.

But the most important reason why the future of the printed word looks as bright as it ever has is that the book possesses attributes that the computer cannot hope to rival. These were nicely summarized last week by Daniel Tanner, a professor of education at Rutgers University, in a letter to The New York Times. "Sweeping claims are being made that an educational revolution via the computer is on the horizon," Tanner wrote, "and some educators go so far as to see the computer replacing books in classrooms and libraries." He then listed several reasons why it is wise to be skeptical about "the demise of the book as a result of electronic technology":

"Aside from being easily portable and readable, in comparison to an electronic screen, and aside from its physical attractiveness, the book (with its pages) conveys a tactile quality and pleasure that no push-button circuitry can provide--even when one is only browsing or skimming through a book, or making marginal notations (preferably only on the pages of one's own books). Moreover, the book can be read while sitting, standing or lying down. It can even grace the walls of a home library or den when it is not being read."

A book, Tanner pointed out, has "personal" qualities that cannot be matched by the computer screen or the printout: People write their names in books "to designate valued ownership," and they often inscribe books when presenting them to friends or relatives as a way of emphasizing the intimate nature of the transaction. More than that, the book as a physical object can be, quite apart from the words it contains, something of great beauty and artistry; a handsome book that has been produced with painstaking care is, in and of itself, a gesture of homage to the written word, a way of recognizing that the art of writing commands reverence.

The computers, their many brilliant attributes notwithstanding, tend to forget about this. To them words are just another "product" to be "processed," to be "moved" and "rubbed out" and "scrolled" and all the other things computers can do to them. Their assumption is that all words are equal, but this is not true. The manufacturers of books, by contrast, are capable of understanding that certain books, i.e., certain words, are better or more important than others, and of producing those books accordingly. A publisher who is in his business for love as well as money knows that the physical book can be a reflection of the words it contains--can "house" them, if you like, in appropriate surroundings.

To be sure, such careful mating of words and book is less common these days in commercial publishing than it used to be. Too often the rule today follows the example of Doubleday and Co., which churns out books that are indistinguishable in appearance, printed in ordinary typefaces on shoddy paper and bound between flimsy boards. But some of the smaller houses, such as Farrar Straus & Giroux in New York and North Point Press in California, still take care to put words where they seem comfortable. These and other publishers understand that a book is something entirely unique, something made to last, and they try to design it so that it will be a pleasure to see and hold as well as to read.

This the computer can never do. It may make the craft of writing easier and more rewarding for any number of persons who find themselves in its thrall, but it can never replace the book as an object to read and possess. Has anyone ever been heard to suggest to a bored child, "Why don't you curl up with a good word processor"? Can you imagine loading the car with software--Dickens, Greene, Christie, Balzac, MacDonald and of course Proust--before heading off to the mountains or beach? Will there someday be an antiquarian market for first-edition floppy discs? Is it possible that poor old yours truly will someday be identified, before he slips contentedly into his dotage, not as a book reviewer but as a word-processor critic? Will someone soon say, as Longfellow said of books, that computers "are sepulchres of thought"?

Speaking of apt sayings, here are a few words that H.L. Mencken tracked down almost half a century ago. They were written by a 17th-century gentleman named Richard Whitelock: "They are for company the best friends, in doubts counsellors, in damps comforters, time's perspective, the home-traveler's ship or horse, the busy man's best recreation, the opiate of idle weariness, the mind's best ordinary, nature's garden, and the seed-plot of immortality."

The gentleman was not speaking about word-processors. things computers can do to them. Their assumption is that all words are equal, but this is not true. The manufacturers of books, by contrast, are capable of understanding that certain books, i.e., certain words, are better or more important than others, and of producing those books accordingly. A publisher who is in his business for love as well as money knows that the physical book can be a reflection of the words it contains--can "house" them, if you like, in appropriate surroundings.

To be sure, such careful mating of words and book is less common these days in commercial publishing than it used to be. Too often the rule today follows the example of Doubleday and Co., which churns out books that are indistinguishable in appearance, printed in ordinary typefaces on shoddy paper and bound between flimsy boards. But some of the smaller houses, such as Farrar Straus & Giroux in New York and North Point Press in California, still take care to put words where they seem comfortable. These and other publishers understand that a book is something entirely unique, something made to last, and they try to design it so that it will be a pleasure to see and hold as well as to read.

This the computer can never do. It may make the craft of writing easier and more rewarding for any number of persons who find themselves in its thrall, but it can never replace the book as an object to read and possess. Has anyone ever been heard to suggest to a bored child, "Why don't you curl up with a good word processor"? Can you imagine loading the car with software--Dickens, Greene, Christie, Balzac, MacDonald and of course Proust--before heading off to the mountains or beach? Will there someday be an antiquarian market for first-edition floppy discs? Is it possible that poor old yours truly will someday be identified, before he slips contentedly into his dotage, not as a book reviewer but as a word-processor critic? Will someone soon say, as Longfellow said of books, that computers "are sepulchres of thought"?

Speaking of apt sayings, here are a few words that H.L. Mencken tracked down almost half a century ago. They were written by a 17th-century gentleman named Richard Whitelock: "They are for company the best friends, in doubts counsellors, in damps comforters, time's perspective, the home-traveler's ship or horse, the busy man's best recreation, the opiate of idle weariness, the mind's best ordinary, nature's garden, and the seed-plot of immortality."

The gentleman was not speaking about word-processors.